Absolute imagination corrupts absolutely
Nauts-based video games have made something of an impact on our gaming culture. Tim Shafer’s Psychonauts is a universally praised platformer and work of genius the likes of which will always feel like a perennially-underrated underdog, regardless of how much adoration it may receive. Hideo Kojima released a game called Policenauts about…well I don’t know what exactly Policenauts is, but the Metal Gear Solid games keep referencing it in brief appearances so it has to have some kind of underappreciated importance. Joining this oddball group of games with no relation aside from their suffix is 5 Cell’s Scribblenauts, a diminutive, childish, pint-sized Nintendo DS title that is arguably the most ambitious release of 2009.
You play as Maxwell; a headphone wearing dweeb with an infectious smile, whose spirit seems to be unbreakable even as Cthulu is clawing away at his flesh. The brief story, in a letdown compared to previous ‘nauts games but inconsequential otherwise, is that you’re using your power of imagination to collect stars. Considering how this game boasts about using imagination as a driving point of existence, I’d like to think that the developer could conjure a more original idea than collecting stars, but now I’m just being petty.
So Maxwell strolls and hobbles around the gameworld with great clumsiness. It seems as if the developers read the reviews for Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars, in which numerous critics (or at least me) despised how the game forced the player to cope with playing the game using both the DS buttons and precise stylus-touch screen interactiveness in a manner that cramped fingers worldwide. So, 5 Cell was made to choose a control layout: DS buttons or the touch screen? And they made the wrong choice. You move Maxwell around the screen by pointing at a direction, but Maxwell is very imprecise when it comes to skipping to and fro the levels, often walking past your intended destination into a fiery pit of doom. Or attempting a jump his little quarter-inch-long legs can’t handle and thus falling in a fiery pit of doom. But expect plenty of fiery doom and frustration when it comes to navigating dear Maxwell. And lest I forget trying to manipulate items; if say, the flower pot you want to pick up is behind an NPC that you can’t interact with, or even behind…say…you, and a nearby fiery pit of doom prevents you from wanting to even attempt to inch forward a tad. Well then you’re SOL my friend, as the touch screen has a habit of interacting with the item you wished least to interact with first.
And now I should begin to touch on what exactly makes Scribblenauts such a big deal in the first place. At any given point during your time as the prozac-fueled Maxwell, you can summon a keyboard. From there, you can type a noun, and the game will incarnate that word onto the screen, Green Lantern-style. As long as it doesn’t infringe a copyright or the game’s E rating, then there is a high probability that the game will create something resembling what you intended. Foods, appliances, people (well, occupational archetypes of people. Typing in “mixed martial artist”, “master” and “sensei” all yield the same menacing old man), animals, weapons, vehicles, mythological creatures and keyboard cat all exist within the Scribbleverse.
With this kind of creative potential, I was quick to realize that Scribblenauts really is the ultimate sandbox game. Prototype’s mass fleshy murdering antics and Infamous’s PG electrical strikes cannot hold a candle to the true potential of Scribblenauts. Even Grand Theft Auto’s pedestrian-flattening feels passé in comparison. If video games were equivalent to the fashion industry, Scribblenauts would be strolling down runways in tight clothes and 0.5 percent body fat.
Want to create a Battle Royale with cops, robbers, superheroes, black knights and Bigfoot? Go for it. Wonder what’ll happen to a lake filled with wildlife when you throw a toaster in the water? Give it a shot. Drive a UFO around the area and abduct cows, or just drop a nuclear bomb and kill everything on the screen. There are moments in this game where I was having doubts about the whole E-rating. Those were around the time I started dropping tumors on the world. You have free reign to do all of this within the Title Screen too, rendering Scribblenauts the possessor of the greatest title screen in all of gaming.
It just makes it all the more disappointing when you start conjuring items, and they don’t do anything. For example, I ordered the creation of handcuffs to give the local constable something for which to imprison criminals (or fulfill sexual fantasies) but no, the handcuffs turned out to be useless. Most living beings can only walk, eat, fight, run away and die. You can’t quite create a doctor that’ll heal the sick or a vampire to swoon high school girls. You’ll quickly come to realize that while you may have the creative freedom to make anything materialize out of thin air, that there’s so little items of value that you can create.
Which ties into the game’s main story mode. In each level, you are tasked with solving a puzzle in order to make a star materialize. Sometimes there’s an obstacle course of sorts to form, sometimes there’s a riddle involved like “give the doctor something he needs.” Some of the puzzles are quirky and fun, and give the freedom to dance around the obvious solution. Take the above doctor puzzle; you COULD hand the doctor a stethoscope or a needle, but the game also accepts a human heart as a plausible solution. Now that’s when I was enjoying Scribblenauts the most; when I was given the free reign to create answers to problems that served more to amuse myself than satisfy the desires of logic.
However, the game’s later puzzles and obstacle course-based levels don’t quite hold up. With later challenges, you’ll quickly realize that the developers started running out of great ideas for this great concept of a game and fall into a trap of obstacle courses and obtuse puzzles with unknown objectives. Expect to fail a mission a lot and be not quite sure why. And also be ready to have a list of standby words like “death ray”, “jetpack” and “God” to use to solve an assortment of similar problems.
Ultimately, whether or not you elect to buy Scribblenauts depends on what you value in a game. If you value the…errr…game part of a game, then you’ll be let down by the broken and lackluster campaign. However, as a toy, Scribblenauts can be a wealth of fun to simply tinker around with, and this toy mentality is better compatible on a handheld system. Between bus stops, you can create an in-game bus and imagine yourself running over cartoon civilians and running away from the big ugly dragon. In that sense, this game would be a winner with today’s Grand Theft Auto generation of kids.
3 ½ stars